Although Utah has one of the largest percentages of school-age children in the country and struggles to educate them, the state is treated shabbily in federal funding for schools - ranking dead last in such support. In fact, Utah is far behind Nevada, listed next-to-last.
In the name of simple fairness, that situation must be changed. A resolution has been prepared for the Utah Legislature urging more equity in the federal aid formula. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, are preparing bills to be introduced in Congress.Utah gets only $130.26 per student from the U.S. Department of Education. The next lowest amount goes to Nevada at $150.12 per student. Alaska leads the list with a whopping $971.92, and the national average is $207.86. If Utah received the national average, it would have gotten an additional $34 million last year.
Why does Utah rank so low in federal aid when the needs obviously are so great?
The answer lies in the federal formulas. Nearly every one of the 11 factors used to figure aid works to Utah's disadvantage. In some instances, the less need, the more federal aid. That's backwards from what it should be. Some examples:
- Poverty is a major criterion in the federal forumla, mostly in the size of welfare rolls. Per capita income is not one of the measurements. Yet Utah ranks 49th in per capita income. In addition, census data used may be up to 10 years old, which hurts growing states like Utah.
- Federal formulas are based on total school-age population, including those in private schools. Utah has only 1.5 percent of school-age youngsters not in public school. The typical state has 11 percent outside the public system. As a result, other states get more money to spread over fewer students.
- Federal aid is based extensively on state per pupil expenditures. The higher the per pupil state outlay, the greater the federal support. A state like Utah - where the percentage of school-age population is large and there are thus fewer taxpayers to provide support - is penalized because of the inevitable lower per pupil expenditure. A state with a lower proportion of school-age youngsters has generally higher per student support and gets more federal dollars as a result. That makes little sense.
- A state's fiscal capacity and its effort to support education are not included in any of the federal formulas. Utah's public school revenue is 5.8 percent of all personal income, fifth highest in the nation and 29 percent higher than the nation average - ignored in figuring federal aid.
- The federal formula, supposedly based on need, does not take into account overcrowded classrooms or pupil-teacher ratios, an area where Utah ranks last because of the heavy growth in school enrollment.
- Utah has a lower-than-average dropout rate and ranks among the top states in the number of school years completed by students. This means Utah has a higher percentage of pupils in school and has them there longer than most states. Yet there is no federal accounting of this relatively greater education burden.
Taken all together, Utah is penalized - as far as federal aid is concerned - for doing a relatively good job of educating extraordinarily large numbers of students with extremely limited resources.
The federal formula needs to be changed so that it more fairly recognizes the education needs of states and the total fiscal effort made by states with their ability to pay.
Until that is done, some of the richer states will get richer and the poorer ones will be shortchanged.